Making Housing Happen!

Over the past couple years, I've seen a very large number of chronically homeless people move out of their homelessness and into permanent housing!  
This success has been remarkable. 
This movement has been astonishing......
  • I emphasis this, because I'm talking about many men and women who've been existing on the streets and in shelters for over a decade or even decades.
  • I speak of this, because many of these people struggle with debilitating mental illnesses, devastating addictive personalities and major health issues.
  • I dwell on this, because jail doors and prison gates frequently rotate these folk in and out, mainly for non-violent offenses and petty crimes.
  • I focus on this, because these men and women face insurmountable obstacles, making their journeys seem impossible.
  • I'm emphasizing all this, because these "successful movements" are modern-day miracles in a society that has labeled these wonderful people "unforgiven" and "unworthy".
Another reason I'm writing this is because I often get asked, "what's your secret? how is Cornerstone housing so many people?" And to add that; many of Chicago's chronically homeless population approach me, saying, "You helped Big Joe, you helped Heather, you helped BamBam get off these streets, help me too!"

Unfortunately, I'm working in a landscape, where the norm screams of hopelessness and despair. Getting out of the deep ditch of homelessness and successfully moving into their own cribs should be simple, but their realities are just the opposite. The task of finding affordable and safe housing should be attainable and everyone's right, yet it remains an extremely complicated and confusing process, often wrapped tightly with too much "red tape"! Within this landscape, these chronically homeless men and women desperately seek a flicker of hope, knowing doors hardly ever open for them! They also know how these same doors can quickly close! Yet despite all this negativity: the good news is, doors are opening, miracles are happening and hope is being found, right here in good ol' Uptown!

My intention in this post is to break down 5 reasons I believe we've seen and continue to see chronically homeless folk rapidly moving into permanent housing. To clarify, these are just my opinions from observing and often walking in the trenches with my homeless friends. In writing this, I know I'm missing many points, because I'm simplifying something that is coated with endless complications, diversity and mystery. With that in mind, these 5 reasons can be summarized with this simplistic phrase: "Know why you want to help people who are homeless; know how to do it, what to do, where to go, who to collaborate with and when to move."

1. Embrace and Believe In Lasting and Loving Philosophies:
When it comes to homelessness, there are many philosophies thrown around, making it easy to be tossed and swayed by various persuasive tools of propaganda! In this line of work, it is imperative to cling onto and trust the housing programs that gel with your own faith, philosophies and compassion. Grip tightly onto anything and everything that promotes the freedom, dignity and respect any human being deserves. Don't waste your time running after known failures or certain programs you know degrade or enslave the ones you intend to enrich. With that being said, when a new model or program surfaces, it is still important to investigate and take a risk, knowing that your leap in faith could result in multiple success stories.

After working on the front lines for well over a decade and seeing many successes, (but also observing failures), I've come to embrace and cling onto 2 catchphrases; "Housing First" and "Harm Reduction"! I wholeheartedly agree with what these 2 terms stand for; they view everybody as unique individuals, created and loved by God, possessing an indelible right to be housed. These catchphrases also respect each individual's dignity, personality, struggles and dreams, while working hard to provide them with a permanent home. The "Housing First" model reverses the usual trend of making sure someone's "right" before they get an apartment, by taking vulnerable people off the street and putting them into their own homes. The "Harm Reduction" model does not call for instant perfection or complete abstinence, but helps individuals reduce the harm they are doing to themselves, others and society. When these 2 models work hand-in-hand, everyone benefits! The following points reveal how we have put legs on the "harm reduction" and "housing first" models in Uptown, and we're happy to say, we have seen some wonderful success stories!

2. Discover and Use Efficient and Reliable Technology:
In this line of work, it didn't take long to discover, technology can either be a wonderful blessing or a wretched curse. Even though we live in this age of instant knowledge, gratification and results, the Internet and smart phones can either take you away, or draw you closer, to the very people we're supposed to be engaging. Certain computer programs are mandated by the powers-that-be, so we have to work out how they won't occupy too much time, control us, lead us in pointless directions or invade people's privacy. By analyzing them and through networking, work out which technological devices and programs are the most efficient for you and use them well. It is essential to utilize the technology that draws us to people in a quick and workable manner.

There are 2 forms of technology I want to focus on; both of these have made me more efficient in reaching out, while also quickening my case-working efforts! I believe these 2 tools have helped create many stories of successful movement. Firstly, carrying around and using a portable device allows me to access and submit information in a timely manner. Instead of insisting people set appointments and come into my office, an iPad (or smartphone) creates opportunities on the streets, in a Church or under a viaduct that would otherwise be missed. Secondly, there's a quick and accessible citywide database called the "Centralized Referral System". By simply placing chronically homeless people on the CRS, many agencies see the need and provide them with support and permanent housing! As you see; the combination of these 2 tools help to create countless opportunities. Many doors have opened for some of society's most vulnerable citizens, simply by using an iPad and enrolling people on the CRS.

3. Know and Utilize Successful and Reliable Resources:
Within the chronically homeless population, stagnation happens because people don't know how to navigate through the complicated maze and cut down all the red tape. Rising out of homelessness can be extremely hard, so to help people successfully move forward, it is essential to know where to go and how to make that happen. What is often just minor nuisances for the middle class, are major obstacles for homeless folk. Our job, as caseworkers, is to assist our participants in overcoming these obstacles; it may be finding a mere $15.00 for a birth certificate, a transit card to get to an appointment or guiding someone to the right program that will meet their needs. If we're unable to make these things happen, we'll just end up rushing around a bunch of stagnant pools, accomplishing very little.

Far too many people come through our doors lacking basic necessities, often claiming other facilities lack the knowledge and resources to "make this happen". This isn't about a lack of willpower in the homeless community, but rather, poverty stricken people trying to navigate through a very complicated and costly system. Some chronically homeless people have lived without these vital documents for an unbelievable amount of years, making them ineligible for countless opportunities. I am not exaggerating, we help hundreds of people obtain their birth certificates and IDs every year. We make this happen through a very important citywide organization called The Emergency Fund. I am Cornerstone's Fund Manager, and therefore, I have the honor of playing a crucial role in helping thousands of individuals and families receive the "boost up" they need to move to the next level. These available resources, having immediate access to assist people with their rent, utilities, furniture, transit cards and documents, eventually results in hundreds of homeless folks getting housed and being able to hold onto their new jobs. 

4. Network and Collaborate With Faithful and Reliable People:
Another essential tool for successful movement is to actively build relationships with workers from all over the city. No one person or agency can do it all on their own! We all need each other! Know which organizations have proven themselves to you, but more importantly, network and collaborate with faithful and reliable people operating on the "front lines". To make myself clear, I'm not promoting connecting with just anybody and everyone; certain folk are "snakes", trying to profit off the weak and vulnerable, some attempt bully tactics and others needlessly occupy all your time with worthless endeavors. It is essential to wisely choose who to trust and how to work together; I'm speaking about building relationships with people who are like-minded, hard working and have the same passion. I'm also speaking about people who are not swayed by political thugs, money-hungry cowards or overtly zealous types, but people who deeply love, care and advocate for the "least of these"!

The successful movement we see, could not and would not happen without a large number of people and agencies networking together! Outreach workers, case-managers and housing locators must all come together. We need them, they need us, and most importantly, our participants need all of us! One of the agencies I've come to trust immensely is Heartland Alliance. Their loving, compassionate and holistic approach for the "least of these", undeniably reflects in their outreach, housing, clinics, groups and the majority of their workers. Whereas, there's a number of folk I could praise here, I want to give a quick "shout out" to my friend and fellow outreach worker Brian. We have collaborated together for years, so I have witnessed firsthand his endless compassion, energy and how he goes well beyond the "call of duty". I'm proud to say, because of this friendship, by networking together, by simply making countless phone calls, texts, emails, meeting over coffee and driving all over the city we've been able to assist a huge number of chronically homeless people move into permanent housing.

5. Create and Form Lasting and Loving Relationships with People Experiencing Homelessness:
I believe this reason is the most important, if we didn't dwell on this one, the first 4 points should all be rendered absolutely worthless. This is the exact reason we do what we do! It is essential to know homeless people in deep and meaningful ways. It is essential to stick by and persevere with our homeless friends. We must be willing to travel through their deepest and darkest valleys with them, so we can also climb mountains with them. This goes far beyond just knowing about their plight, endless needs and where to go for help, we must be willing to create and form lasting and loving relationships, so they will grow to love and trust us! 

As I focus on this fifth reason, it is imperative to emphasize one essential thing: all our education, our technological brilliance, our access to resources and networking will amount to naught if we don't build solid, trustworthy and loving relationships with people experiencing homelessness. 

In other words; if we're trying to help people experiencing homelessness and they don't know or trust us, all our efforts will be futile. "Street people" and "shelter folk" know the difference between workers who truly have their best interests in mind and care about them, compared to those who are just aiming for numbers and a paycheck! This is where we need to ask ourselves hard questions like; "are we willing to crouch on the cold hard pavement next to someone who is chronically homeless?", "are we willing to visit lonely and marginalized people in hospitals and Nursing Homes?" and "are we willing to keep helping and listening to someone who keeps relapsing or getting into trouble?"

Many homeless people have been viciously stomped on for years. They've been the unfortunate recipients of too many broken and false promises by the "powers-that-be", therefore it is essential to be known as a reliable and trustworthy face in their landscapes of hostility and despair! Trust in the homeless community does not happen overnight, building a positive reputation takes years. We have to remember; we're entering their world, and therefore it's wrong to arrogantly strut in with a "savior complex", displaying thuggish superiority and a "know-it-all" mentality. Homeless folk chat among themselves and drift toward those who don't treat them as inferior, but as equals; as people created and loved by God! As we throw away the stereotypes and labels, we gain positive reputations by treating each and every person as unique individuals! They see how we respond to everyone's dreams, differences, needs, desperation, conflicts, grief, controversies and even verbal assaults; we are placed under society's microscope of continual judgment and observation! When we are faced with the roughest circumstances or we have to confront or discipline someone, people desire, or need, to see humility, compassion and mercy. As trust and love is earned, hope will surface out of hopelessness and miracles will spring out of the mundane! 

Johnny has been living outside for almost 40 years. He lives with a devastating disability in the 21st century; he cannot read or write! Johnny also doesn't sleep in shelters, he's been sleeping in dumpsters, parks, alleyways and on porches. Tommy is a quiet Vietnam veteran who's spent the last 30 years rotating through most of Chicago's shelters! Kevin has been sleeping under the Wilson viaduct and other uninhabitable locations throughout Uptown for 15 years. Julio is 86 years old, stays at CCO, struggles with several health issues and has been homeless for about 5 years. These 4 fellas are quite diverse; they come from various cultures and each one struggles with their own difficulties, yet they're united in this one dilemma; while seemingly invisible to society, they're chronically homeless and don't know how to climb out of the deep hole they find themselves in! 

Yet, in spite of all this, there's good news; these 4 men are just moments away from moving into their own apartments. Their stories reflect the positive movement that's happening at CCO and echo the concerted efforts and combinations of the 5 reasons I mentioned above. Let me illustrate....

With each of these guys, relationships of mutual trust was built over many long years. I've known Johnny for about 15 years. He trusted me, so he begged me to help him get housed, so I spoke to fellow outreach workers and I placed him on the CRS. When his name eventually "came up", we knew where to find him and give him the good news. A few of us collaborated together, we utilized the right resources, ensuring he made it to appointments, filled out the right documents, got his ID, social security card and other essential items. During the course of this complicated journey, we've driven Johnny all over the city and provided palpable hope to a man who's been homeless for almost 4 decades! 

Each man's journey involves similarities to Johnny's, their journeys combine trustworthy relationships with many important players and resources; Tommy's hope includes his faithful caseworker who's been willing to frequently travel to the Veteran's Administration with him; Kevin's hope started when we spoke in front of McDonald's, I used my iPad to place him onto the CRS database and 24 hours later, an agency called me to place him in housing; Julio's hope continues because we've been able to access Emergency Funding at appropriate times. The stories of these 4 fellas, exemplifies the fact we need one another and simply mirrors the stories of all who have travelled similar journeys before them. 

As I reflect on all who've passed through Cornerstone's doors and end up chilling in their own cribs, I must also reflect on the Intangible! There are times when the miraculous happens and all we can exclaim is, "how in the world did that happen?"; these are the times when a person's journey is mysteriously quickened and the seemingly impossible, becomes possible. I wholeheartedly believe God lives in our midst; he deeply loves and is concerned about the "least of these", quietly moving and shaking things up within the status quo! Yet, there are those times when we see guys like Big T and BamBam move from the realm of being chronically homeless to be suddenly housed. When this happens, I cannot help but believe, God mysteriously quickened reality! With these 2 guys, I was throwing my hands in the air in desperation and crying out "it's impossible! Please God help us!", and within weeks they were housed, permanently! It remains one of life's biggest pleasures to see the hand of God reach down to "make the impossible happen!" It is one of life's biggest motivators to see God mysteriously move within the homeless community! 

When I think of these 4 guys, along with Big T, BamBam and the hundreds who were once homeless and are now permanently housed, my hope in God and humanity is restored; WHY? Because of how wonderful it is to see so many people coming together, advocating for the "weak", loving the poor and lifting up the "least of these", so those without homes can move into their own cribs. 
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